HOLST: Walt Whitman -- Overture, op. 7. Symphony
in F, op. 8 "The
Cotswolds." A Winter Idyll. Japanese Suite, op. 33. Indra -- Symphonic
Poem, op. 13.
Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta.
Naxos 8.572914 TT: 65:55.
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A bargain. On his path to artistic maturity, Holst put much of his trust
in thorough preparation. He remarked to his friend Vaughan Williams that
they ought to be writing the pieces today which would help them in the
future. Vaughan Williams, who never really feared failure and who quite
liked taking as many risks in his work as he wanted, disagreed. Furthermore,
despite his commitment to methodical progress, Holst's own artistic growth
in fact suddenly sprouted in spurts rather than gradually grew, and moved
in unpredictable directions, besides. It took him about ten years to find
himself and start writing the work we hear as characteristic, a modest
amount of time as these things go.
He spent much of that period sorting out the jumble in his mind. A list
of his early works reveals an artist trying to move in several directions
at once, pulled in the directions of Wagner, Bach, Eastern religions,
medieval and ballad poetry, libertarian socialism (anti-authoritarian,
production held in common, respect for personal property), and literary "moderns" like
Hardy and Robert Bridges. In most of the works here, pre-Planets,
Wagner dominates musically. However, Holst had not only the advantage
Stanford's teaching but of practical experience as an orchestral trombonist.
Stanford drilled technique into his students and insisted they hear what
they wrote. Most of them undoubtedly became as a group the most adept
young composers in England, the rising generation, in fact. As a professional
orchestral trombonist, between all those measures of "laying out," Holst
could contemplate the instrumental effects he heard from the inside,
as it were. This resulted in a remarkable flair for the orchestra, clear
still sounding, even during the time Holst remained Stanford's student.
We see this in the remarkably assured A Winter Idyll, written while still
in school. The orchestration stands out as more than capable, although
not as wizard-like as it became later on. With this work, Holst shows that
he knows the late-Romantic orchestra very well. The music rings with echoes
of early Wagner -- say, around Flying Dutchman, although Holst moves more
lightly and without Wagner's potato-stew scoring -- as well as a composer
like Sullivan. Perhaps Holst was trying to find a way to assert Englishness.
However, Holst impresses -- as a student -- with a seamless piece nine
minutes long based on mainly two ideas solidly worked out. Most English
composers at the time would have taken pride in such a score, had they
On many British socialist and liberal reading lists around the turn of
the century, you would have found both Walt Whitman and John Bunyan. Bunyan
supplied the moral fervor of progressives, Whitman the poetic. In addition
to the overture, Holst wrote the ambitious Whitman cantata The Mystic
Trumpeter and Dirge for Two Veterans, as well as an austere setting for brass and
men's voices of the Ode to Death, although he seemed to drop Whitman as
a source of inspiration later on. Holst's overture rises to capable and,
unlike A Winter Idyll, nothing more. Many minor British composers could
have written this, although the orchestral writing, particularly for the
brass, is stunning. Wagner takes a stronger hand, this time the music deriving
Composers seldom progress from strength to strength. They don't "ring
the bell" every time, one reason why Holst shouldn't have expected
his conscious plans to work out. The Cotswold Symphony shows Holst trying
to break the confines of the single-movement concert piece toward a bigger
statement. A year out of the Royal College of Music (1899), the mental
jungle in his mind has thickened. What it means to be a specifically English
composer stirs in his mind. No surprise, but he takes from the models out
there, but not necessarily the best models. The first movement is twee
Olde English such as you would expect in Edward German or Sullivan's Yeoman
of the Guard, but without Sullivan's genius. There's nothing wrong with
it if part of, say, a suite of incidental music like German's Henry
VIII Dances, but it hasn’t the weight of an opening symphonic
movement. In the scherzo and the finale, Holst begins to wave bye-bye
and the seeds of his mature idiom begin to germinate. The scherzo is
noteworthy for here and there a piquancy of scoring that blossoms in The Planets'
(Mercury), while in the finale, although marred by an abrupt end, a folkish
lilt tinges the themes.
Again, in a symphony, those three movements amount to small beer. However,
the slow movement, "Elegy (In memoriam William Morris)," blows
off the foam. It may constitute Holst's best work of his early period,
and indeed people have played and recorded it as a separate piece. It shows
us why Vaughan Williams thought Holst worth watching, other than friendship.
Traces of Wagner remain, but they're not blatant. Don't expect Siegfried's
funeral march. It's more a matter of relying on sequences (the same idea
repeated higher or lower) to build length, and even then Holst doesn't
resort to this technique all the time, and certainly not to Wagner's extent.
British socialist secular saint Morris died in 1896, politically a scandalous
figure among those who thought of him as a "respectable" craftsman
and poet. Among other things, he was for a time allied with Friedrich
Engels and Marx's daughter Eleanor. The score doesn't celebrate some
but a very good man. It runs nine minutes, which Holst shapes beautifully.
The awkwardness and small sights of the other movements are nowhere in
The tone poem Indra shows again that artists seldom progress steadily to
their summit. Holst again flexes his muscles, trying to break out of a
compositional rut. There's genuine ambition here. At this point, Holst
has succumbed to the fascination of the Hindu Vedas. They may very well
have given him the opportunity to find himself artistically. He even tried
to learn Sanskrit, although he never mastered it. Nevertheless, this results
in the beginnings of work characteristic of his maturity: the series Choral
Hymns from the Rig Veda, the chamber opera masterpiece Savitri, as well
as a taste for the exotic and esoteric like Beni Mora, the Japanese
Suite, The Hymn of Jesus, and even The Planets. The score depicts the slaying
of the serpent demon Vritra by the hero-god Indra. Fortunately, you really
don't need to know the plot to listen to the music. Once more, the orchestration
constitutes the most the most impressive part of the piece, with The
over a decade away, struggling to break out. Holst has definitely left
his late Nineteenth-Century style behind and looks for something else.
We see signs of breakthrough "fingerprints," notably a fondness
for bass ostinato and the beginnings of a modally-inflected musical language.
Curiously, Holst becomes most interesting here when he's really setting
up a section, in the midst of a prelude, functionally marking time, rather
than for the thematic section itself. The very opening constitutes a strong
example of this, with off-kilter brass fanfares (again, killer brass writing)
against a background that practically vibrates. You can hear little musical
seeds that will later blossom into "Jupiter" and The Perfect
Fool ballet music.
By 1914, Holst had already fully matured. In that year, a Japanese dancer,
influenced by the American poet Ezra Pound to perform in London something
based on a Noh play, asked Holst for music. Holst interrupted work on The
Planets and obliged the dancer with the Japanese Suite,
a ten-minute gem. All the hesitations and artistic fat of the previous
works on this program
have gone. Instead, Holst gives us an individual voice, different than
although contemporary with that of The Planets -- terse and incisive.
You could cut yourself on the orchestration alone, genuinely brilliant
poetic at the same time. At the same time, Holst avoids the clichés
of "oriental" music, evoking Asia in a completely individual
way, as Britten did much later in Curlew River. Ostinati and themes with
a strong ostinato component take up a good chunk of the score. As early
as the 2 Carols and Beni Mora's "In the Street of the Ouled Näils" (both
1908) the hypnotic effect of continuous straight repetition fascinated
Holst, going against the then-conventional grain of organic variation.
Of course, Holst keeps only one element constant and varies the rest,
but the music can still convey at some times meditation or at others
The Japanese Suite goes from dreamy to ritualistic to delicate
to a wrathful finale ("Dance of the Wolves"), and the rougher sections may
remind you a bit of "King Kashchei's Infernal Dance," although
I have no idea whether Holst had actually heard Stravinsky's 1910 Firebird by this time. Apparently, the two composers find themselves in the same
psychic neighborhood. Stravinsky's language differs so much from Holst's
that I don't believe you can claim anything like a steal or even an echo.
Happily, Naxos has brought this masterpiece, previously available mainly
on full-price, hard-to-find labels, to wider notice.
Holst collectors cherish the recordings of Imogen Holst, the composer's
daughter and a miraculous musician, who devoted herself to keeping Gustav's
music before notice. Each is a classic. Unfortunately, most of them came
out on the Argo label, which cut them. Decca/London/EMI have reissued some
of it. Lyrita's Holst series also produced many fine recordings with Sir
Adrian Boult, David Atherton, Nicholas Braithwaite, and again Imogen Holst.
I believe you can get all the works here from those sets. But why? Falletta
does a beautiful job, if not a legendary one, and all for the price of
a Naxos disc. She definitively swats Douglas Bostock's similar CD out of
competition. Indeed, she outshines Atherton in the Morris Elegy. The Ulsterfolk
respond flexibly and sensitively to whatever she does and the sound holds
S.G.S. (May 2014)